You may get a feeling of déjà vu watching Woody Allen's latest film, Blue Jasmine, the basic setup being a dead ringer for the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire. Cate Blanchett plays the Blanche DuBois character, a delicate and poised but down-on-her-luck, deluded woman who finds she must move into the pressure-cooker environment of her sister's working-class home. Blanchett's Jasmine butts heads with her sister's brutish lover, finds brief hope of salvation in a kind suitor, and narrowly skirts a nervous breakdown before finally succumbing. Curiously, Blanchett played the Streetcar role to rave reviews in Sydney and New York in 2009, a revival Allen maintains he never saw.
But Allen's Jasmine is no Southern Belle: She's the former wife of a disgraced Wall Street investor (played with slithery, swarthy charm by Alec Baldwin in numerous flashbacks) and, moreover, there are few erotic sparks between Jasmine and her sister's fiancé. Or anywhere in Allen's oeuvre, come to think of it. Placing himself inside a Tennessee Williams play, Allen reveals his own mode as somewhat analytical and removed. Certainly erotic entanglement, desperation, and regret are common in Allen films, but actual, real erotic heat is a rare beast indeed. It's hardly the most telling revelation about his work, but it is nonetheless curious to see desire excised from a tale in which it famously once took center stage.
Judging solely from the script, I think few would likely categorize the straightforward role of Jasmine as Oscar bait, but Blanchett's nuanced, focused, and divinely finessed performance label that little statue as hers as clearly as if she'd spent the film's hour and a half with a tiny chisel in her hand. She's exquisite every moment. Much has been made of Allen's use of stand-up comics Louis CK and Andrew Dice Clay in smaller roles, but I think Allen is simply a director who understands personal style. He knows how to place a personality, even an unappealing one, in a setting where it will do the most good.
Ultimately, the film departs from the Streetcar route in its incisive emphasis on 21st century concerns: identity, the mutability (and immutability) of class, and the question of individual moral responsibility in cases of widespread malfeasance. How much Jasmine was willing to turn a blind eye to her husband's shady dealings becomes a central question in our constantly shifting and complicated sympathies for the character. Allen wisely keeps his focus sharp and narrow on his smartly paced story and interesting, believable characters, but one of the film's strongest, if subtler, threads turns out to be broadly allegorical. Fallen, wandering through a dreamlike haze in the same nice clothes she once wore, scraping by as best she can, mumbling about better days of wine and candlelight, still spending profligately, avoiding any thoughts of culpability she may have held in the corrupt system by which she benefitted, not entirely unsympathetic in her desperation but also not without plenty of well-earned guilt and blame — that's Jasmine. But as Mr. John Cougar Mellencamp put it: Ain't that America?
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